Journals now hinder the dissemination of scientific information

Dienekes’ Anthropology BlogThis is a reblog of a post by Dienekes on his Anthropology blog.

A case well made though I would suggest that it is “dissemination” that is being hindered and that any hindrance of “scientific progress” is collateral damage. But I suspect that the role of journals in scientific dissemination is in transition and the scientific community has yet to exploit, come to terms with or understand the potential of open access. However I do not believe – as Dienekes does – that the solution lies in government coercion – we have enough of that already. The solution will – I think – come from the technology itself. The possibility to disseminate widely will lead to “open access” truly becoming open access. It is already noticeable that the more enlightened scientists – and I would suggest they are the better scientists – all run their own blogs and open themselves up to much wider scrutiny than that available through pay-walled journals.  I also note in passing that “plagiarism” is a scientific crime only because copyright is “violated” or because an individual is trying to get undue credit. But plagiarism – unlike faking data or cherry-picking data – does not necessarily hinder scientific progress (which must necessarily build on the shoulders of those who went before – even if they were not giants and only unacknowledged pygmies).

How journals once facilitated and now hinder scientific progress.

 Scientific journals, were instrumental in the ascent of a scientific culture during the modern era. Before their invention in the 17th century, there was, of course, communication of novel scientific findings. However, this largely took the form of:
  1. visits between scholars, not particularly easy by steam and coach, 
  2. letters between scientists interested in the same topics, 
  3. ad hoc collections of writings in the form of manuals, lecture notes, or 
  4. more organized publication of monographs for mature and complete work.

Science during the pre-journal era was not widely disseminated. It was the privilege of the few who aggregated in university towns or around noble patrons. There was, indeed, a culture of distrust, the most famous episode of which was the infamous feud between Newton and Leibniz on the invention of calculus. And, indeed, even though there was already an emergent bourgeoisie with scientific interests, these were largely excluded from science by the mere fact that they were “disconnected” from the network of scientists.

Scientific journals solved many of these problems:
They introduced a centralized method for assigning credit to authors (via publication) anddisseminating science to all interested parties (libraries, wealthy dilettantes, etc.)

  1. They made science communication and progress significantly faster, since novel findings could be revealed in piecemeal fashion, and widely disseminated to anyone who might be interested in them and/or build upon them.

Scientific journals made the dissemination of science faster, cheaper, and wider.

I will argue that modern journals perform the exact opposite function: they cause the dissemination of science to be slower, more expensive, and more limited.

How can I argue that modern journals make the dissemination of science slower? The proper comparison is not, of course, against the speed of dissemination of the 17th century, but, rather what is technically possible at any given time.

When journals were invented, they more or less allowed results to be made available as soon as possible, given the limitations of wind, horse, paper, ink, and the necessity of combining contributions into collections that could be printed periodically.

Contrast with the present day: scientific contributions could become available to billions of people, as soon as they have been written. The only real remaining obstacle is the brain-hand-computer interface. But, this, is not, of course, what takes place: rather:

  • scientists postpone the publication of preliminary results until they have a cumulative piece of work that is “publishable” according to journals’ standards
  • they submit their work to a closed system of peer review in which a handful of eyes decide whether their work merits publication or not. This takes time, and withholds the work from judgment from literally everybody who might have something to say about it, professional scientists and laymen alike
  • they journal-shop their contributions, with perhaps several rounds of submission/review/rejection/re-writing/re-submission. This may, of course, make their work better, but it introduces months if not years of latency; papers could, in fact, be improved and enhanced post-publication.
  • finally, they must abide by journals’ rules regarding publication. The necessity for bundling up contributions in paper format has largely disappeared, but editors’ need to plan issues and schedule papers and “publicity” accordingly has not.

Let’s proceed to point #2: journals make the publication of science more expensive.

Again, the proper comparison is not with the 17th century, but rather with what is technically feasible today: we can now disseminate scientific research entirely for free.

If you’ve read this blog for a few years, neither I nor you have paid a cent for it. It could be argued that someone (i.e., Google or other service providers) is paying for this ability, but they are not forcing anyone to contribute. Obviously, they have a business model which allows them to provide free bandwidth to millions of content generatorsNo one has to pay to read/publish text on the web.

Transmitting papers over the web has a trivial cost. This cost is, indeed, so small, that it is probably negligible in the context of running the Internet. By their very nature, papers are usually small compared to multimedia files. And, even if they became much larger and included lots of multimedia supplements, they could still be easily transmitted using peer-to-peer file sharing technologies and the like.

On the contrary, journals today charge for access to their papers. Sometimes, it is subscribers that pay, else it is authors (in many “open access” journals). But, what is the service that journals actually provide to science?Authors can easily format manuscripts to a readable template, and reviewers contribute their time for free. Journals are leeches on society that provide no discernible service.

At most, it could be argued, that the hierarchy of journals allows everyone to assess the value of new scientific findings. If it’s published in XYZ, the idea goes, it must be important. But, this is a pernicious idea for at least two reasons: first of all, there is no shortcut for assessing the value of a scientific paper: you have to read it!

Second, the air of respectability that journal publication provides allows bad science to survive and replicate. Once in a while, some story comes along, such as the “arsenic life” debacle to remind us that being published in XYZ isn’t a guarantee of merit. And, indeed, what better way to facilitate the “weeding out” of bad science than to allow more eyes to scrutinize it?

Science dissemination is now more limited. In this respect, the “open access” model has a supposed advantage over the “closed access” one, since it allows everyone to read a paper.

But, the leading variety of “open access” -in which authors pay for publication- is also limiting. It does so not by limiting who gets to read what is published, but by limiting who gets to publish. The choice cannot be for authors to either “pay up” or for readers to “pay up”. No one really has to pay anything more than is necessary to run and maintain the Internet infrastructure itself.

Conclusion

I hope I have convinced you that modern science publishing is utterly indefensible: it delays and limits the dissemination of science. It prohibits the poor from publishing or reading science, and hence it helps reinforce poverty and ignorance.

Who benefits from the current model? Of course, rent-seeking journals do. But, we should not absolve scientists themselves of their responsibility. The journal system is scientists’ way of assigning and receiving credit for their work. It is a sine qua non of the modern professional science world with its emphases on careerism, grant-seeking, etc.

We must not be oblivious to the fact that what may be good for “scientists” may not be good for Science, and has indeed become a poison that is threatening to strangle Science itself. Can there be redemption for this culpability? Scientists, after all, are supposed to be innovators, so it is surprising how reactionary they have become to any changes in their modus operandi

More and more people seem to understand the problem, but few are willing to embrace the solution. It may be ironic, but the road to scientific freedom may ultimately depend on government coercion precipitated by democratic demand. I don’t hope that this will happen soon, both because of corrupt governments and an apathetic populace, but it must.

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